A Talk with Arafat

In mid-February 1989 a group of six senior American specialists on the Middle East, including three former high-ranking US government officials, went to Tunis for three and a half days of intensive talks with high PLO officials, among them Yasser Arafat and Abu Iyad, the second highest ranking official in the PLO, in an effort to determine if the PLO was serious about its newly proclaimed peace initiative, which calls for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.* The members of the group agreed that if they found the PLO to be serious about peace, they would then present their views on how the Palestinian–Israeli peace process could be encouraged. This was one of the few extensive meetings of American Middle East specialists with Mr. Arafat and the other leaders of the PLO to take place; its outcome was, in my view, encouraging.

As the only Jew in the American delegation, I had prepared for the trip by asking a number of other Jews, including Israelis both inside and outside the Israeli government, Americans involved in Jewish community relations councils and other Jewish organizations, as well as rabbis and fellow Jewish academics, to suggest the issues they would raise if they had the opportunity to speak to PLO officials. From my interviews I compiled a list of twenty-one questions, the most important of which I planned to raise with the PLO officials.

The first opportunity to raise these questions came the night we arrived, when Yasser Arafat himself was host at a dinner for the delegation (I had informed the Palestinians in advance that I observed the Jewish dietary laws, and so I was always able to get suitable food). Arafat, in our meetings, turned out to be a very engaging man who has in common with some Israelis a habit of clicking his tongue just before he says no. He served some of the food to us himself and when we left at midnight after almost four hours of talks, he escorted us to our cars, although it was raining outside and he had three more interviews (one with Mike Wallace of CBS) still awaiting him inside.

At the beginning of the evening’s discussion, we talked about the peace process, and Arafat’s statements at first seemed to me simplistic and defensive when he was challenged. He said that while the PLO was talking to individual Israelis to promote the peace process, what was needed was “another Eisenhower” to pressure Israel, America’s “naughty child.” When he was told by the American delegation that another Eisenhower was extremely unlikely, he seemed somewhat taken aback. The most heated part of the discussion came when, after introducing myself as an American Jew, I pointed out to Arafat that while the Palestinian National Council statement of November 1988 and Arafat’s speech at the UN meeting in Geneva in December 1988 were positive steps, much more had to be done to convince Israelis and American Jews that the PLO was indeed serious about peace.

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